On Monday afternoon, April 1, a number of Altamont Grade School early childhood and lower elementary classes packed into the cafeteria for a memorable party, celebrating five-year-old Altamont student Owen Savage and the granting of his wish through the Make A Wish Foundation of Illinois.
At around 1:30 p.m., volunteers and family members began setting up for the party. Young students would meet with Effingham High School drama students, all dressed as popular childhood characters, over a snack provided to them by the volunteers.
When they arrived, each class got to wander through the line of characters, meeting popular figures like Mr. Popper and his penguins, Mary Poppins, princesses Elsa and Anna of Disney’s Frozen, and Spiderman, before sitting down for Owen’s arrival. Wish granter Janet Smallwood spoke briefly to the students, explaining Owen’s condition and the mission of the Make A Wish Foundation, before he entered to chanting fanfare from his classmates. After Owen was seated, students snacked on juice and Rice Krispies while the characters visited them at their tables.
But the character party wasn’t the end of Owen’s wish: around a year ago, Owen that he wanted to visit Disney World. That wish pays off when, this week, he and his family will be driven to the airport in a limousine to catch a flight to Orlando, where they will enjoy the Disney Parks (and, in particular, a Star Wars-themed guided tour of Hollywood Studios).
Until the day of the character party at Altamont Grade School, Owen didn’t know his wish would be granted; he didn’t even know of the party for him and his classmates. The rest of his family—brothers Ethan, 11, Landon, 10, dad Rick Savage, and mom Kristen Savage especially—had kept it all a careful secret.
Just after the party’s completion, Kristen Savage asked Owen what he thought of his party. After batches of photos from friends, family members, and volunteers alike, Owen gave his review.
“He was scared until he saw dad [at the party,]” Kristen Savage relayed.
Make A Wish kids struggle with significant challenges early in life, and Owen is no exception. At Kristen Savage’s 19-week ultrasound, doctors found that he had a complex heart; immediately after birth, he was transferred to the NICU of Mercy Hospital St. Louis, and then to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. He underwent open heart surgery, his first of three so far, at nine days old.
After his first surgery, Kristen Savage comments, Owen coded in the night, was given CPR, and was later placed on an ECMO (or Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) machine for several days to let his heart and lungs rest. By October of 2014, after his second open heart surgery at four months of age, a thoracic ligation to drain fluid from his lungs, and a failure to thrive marker, Owen was placed on a G tube, and was completely tube-fed for three years. Later, following his third open-heart surgery, Owen suffered a major stroke and was paralyzed on his left side.
Despite everything, Owen is doing remarkably well. Kristen Savage notes that he’s had a few lingering speech and fine motor skill delays following his stroke (though he regained his ability to walk in a month of therapy); otherwise he’s better than expected. “I give 100 percent of his recovery to God… we’ve been blessed with a miracle,” she says.
Kristen Savage comments that she met wish granters Smallwood and Rosa Schmidt almost a year ago after applying online to the Make A Wish Foundation. “It was pretty simple,” she said; the Savages requested a diagnosis summary from Owen’s cardiologist and filled out a short referral form. Not long after, the wish granters got in contact with the family and began the wish granting process.
The Savages have nothing but kind reviews for the Foundation. “They’re awesome… the whole organization is amazing,” says Kristen Savage. “They’re quick to answer questions.” Smallwood, meanwhile, is satisfied to see Owen’s wish, her last for the foreseeable future, in motion.
Owen’s wish was granted through Make A Wish Illinois, a chapter that has “since 1985… granted more than 15,000 wishes to children across the state with the support of 1,500 volunteers and numerous donors and other supporters,” according to illinois.wish.org. The Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, BBB-accredited charity with an 81 percent program-service expense ratio.
Smallwood comments that Make A Wish Illinois is “always looking for wish granters,” especially outside of major cities. Wish granters like her can travel long distances to meet with eligible children, but ultimately serve a vital purpose.
“It’s the child that gets the illness… it’s the community that gets them through it,” Smallwood says.
The Make A Wish Foundation of Illinois offers many ways for community members to get involved. Visit illinois.wish.org and click the “Ways to Help” or “Donate” buttons on the top right of the page for more information.
The Savages would like to thank the following for their continued support: grandmother and grandfather Roxie and Terry Wendling; aunt Lisa Conner; uncle Nathan Wendling; great-aunt and great-uncle Dennis and Nanette Wendling; great-aunt Brenda Hammer; cousin Annika Homann; friend of the family Donna Stuckemeyer; the pastors and congregations of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Altamont and Zion Lutheran Church of Pevely, Mo.; all the friends and family who visited Owen and sent cards while he was hospitalized; and the Make A Wish Foundation of Illinois.